A flurry of letters and statements about the Columbia River System Operations draft EIS preceded its actual Feb. 28 release.

In addition to a letter from 17 utility industry and conservation leaders asking Northwest governors to start a collaborative process to resolve the issues, three groups representing 5 million public power customers wrote to the same governors to remind them of the importance of the federal hydroelectric system.

Meanwhile, public power utilities in Oregon wrote to Gov. Kate Brown questioning her apparent support for removing Snake River dams, and Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse invited Brown to visit the dams. And at least one environmental group—American Rivers—issued a news release predicting the EIS will not adequately protect Snake River salmon, and is unlikely to survive another legal challenge.

A Feb. 24 letter from the Public Power Council, Northwest Requirements Utilities and Northwest RiverPartners told Govs. Kate Brown, Steve Bullock, Jay Inslee and Brad Little that the nonprofit utilities they represent rely on the clean, renewable and reliable hydropower marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration. "[A]ny detrimental actions that further hamper the output or raise production costs of our regional backbone of clean, reliable federal hydro resources will impact the overall welfare of the states you govern, and could put our region several steps back instead of forward in a number of areas," the letter said.

It asked the governors to coordinate a unified response from their state agencies, and to plan for a cross-state coordination, that supports the federal hydroelectric system.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, told NW Fishletter that from his perspective, breaching the lower Snake River dams or increasing spill are both detrimental to the region's ability to produce clean and reliable energy.

"The [National Environmental Policy Act] process is supposed to be a holistic analysis," he said. "It looks at fish and wildlife, but also socioeconomics, and the environmental impacts. What we were really encouraging the governors to do when they are reviewing the draft EIS results, is to look at it in that context. It's very easy to get laser-focused on just one aspect of the EIS. But per law, it's supposed to take this more balanced, holistic approach of what's good for the region. This is a friendly reminder of what the NEPA process is supposed to do, and encourages them to look at it in that light."

He said the letter was sent to the governors and to Northwest Power and Conservation Council members who represent the four states.

The letter stated, "Because BPA serves, directly or indirectly, all residents and businesses in each of your states, it is important that state positions on the future operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System are coordinated and informed. It's especially important now, as there are new ambitious carbon goals and policies taking shape across the West at the same time as fossil-fueled power plants also are being phased out, which raises concerns about electricity costs and the higher prospect of regional blackouts."

Miller said that while RiverPartners was not among the groups signing the joint energy industry-conservation leaders’ letter to the governors, he supports their collaborative approach and staying out of the courtroom in favor of finding a solution outside the EIS process.

"I was disappointed that the group didn't seem to coalesce around the value that hydro brings to the region. I think that's foundational," he said, but added, "We think it totally makes sense for these groups to talk and see if they can find common ground."

Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) asked Democratic Gov. Kate Brown to "engage in a constructive dialogue" about the lower Snake River dams and invited her to tour Ice Harbor Dam to learn about its fish passage facilities and review what science says about removing the dams.

The invitation is in response to Brown's Feb. 11 letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee that expressed support for removing the dams, but also asked to collaborate on near-term actions such as boosting hatchery releases, to help Snake River salmon and endangered southern resident orcas.

Newhouse's letter questions the science referenced in Brown's letter that says removing the dams is "the most certain and robust solution" to recovering Snake River fish.

NOAA data "quite directly refutes this claim," Newhouse's letter stated. "In fact, salmon in the lower Snake River have higher survival rates than what can be found in some undammed rivers, including the Fraser River in Canada—which NOAA scientists list as one of the most important sources of Chinook salmon for orcas."

In addition, several Oregon electric cooperatives and PUDs joined together to respond to Brown's letter. A Feb. 25 letter to Brown from the Oregon PUD Association and the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association expresses "profound disappointment" with her position. "This decision, made without any consultation or prior notice with leaders of consumer-owned utilities, will have severe consequences for the state's economy, environment and our ability to provide affordable, reliable electricity," it said.

The letter pointed to the clean energy produced by the dams, and their importance in reaching clean energy goals. It disagreed with Brown's assessment that removing the dams would address orca and salmon recovery issues.

"We urge you to reconsider this ill-fated decision and engage with consumer-owned utility leaders in a manner that is more consistent with 'The Oregon Way' you often espouse," the letter concluded. It is signed by general managers and CEOs from 24 electric cooperatives and PUDs.

Also on Feb. 25,American Rivers issued a news release predicting the draft EIS for operating hydroelectric projects on the Snake and Columbia rivers won't deliver for salmon or communities. "Five plans have failed already, rejected by courts as illegal and inadequate for saving endangered salmon, and the same fate likely awaits this one," the release said.

"Here in the Northwest, we're looking at yet another Snake River salmon recovery plan that will almost certainly fail and is unlikely to survive legal challenge," Wendy McDermott, American Rivers' director of Puget Sound and Columbia Basin, said in the release. She suggested the EIS was not designed to address the complex challenges needed to find a comprehensive solution for salmon, energy, agriculture and obligations to treaty tribes.

"The region's governors are spurring important dialogue about how we might reimagine our relationship with the Columbia and Snake rivers and ensure a future of abundant salmon, clean affordable energy and thriving agriculture. Key members of the Northwest Congressional delegation, who ultimately will need to craft a comprehensive legislative solution, are also supporting constructive conversations," her statement said.

"We must focus on what connects us and commit to meeting the region's energy, agricultural and conservation challenges together," her statement concluded.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.